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So the Olympus OM-D E-M5 sensor isn't a Panasonic, but does it really matter?

Rating: 64 votes, 5.00 average.

Olympus has found a new source of sensor for the OM-D E-M5

As I revealed on the forum earlier in this week after a tip-off from a highly trusted contact in the camera industry based in Japan, I am completely convinced that the Olympus OM-D E-M5 sensor is not made by Panasonic, so marking an end to the exclusive use of Panasonic sensors in Olympus Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras since Olympus' last Kodak sensor camera, the E-400 in 2006. To emphasise how much I trust this source, until I heard from him I was totally convinced that the E-M5 sensor was related closely to the Panasonic sensors used in the Lumix GX1 and G3 camera models.

Of course I can't prove anything so you will either believe me or not. Sooner or later there should be firm proof once we get testers like the guys at DxOMark to work their magic and we can compare back to back results between the E-M5 and the GX1 and G3. To my mind, wit the E-M5 sample images I have published the extreme high ISO performance of the sample E-M5 camera I used last week was better than with the GX1 or G3, although I did not have the chance to compare these directly with the E-M5. As many of you have seen, I was able to do a simple low light back to back comparison with an Olympus Pen E-P3 and the results easily confirmed that the high ISO performance of the E-M5 is a big step up from the current range of Pens. Both cameras share the same TruePic VI image processor so the differences must primarily be down to the sensor.

There has been a huge debate concerning where Olympus sources its sensors from, but does it actually matter - as long as Olympus is able to source the best sensor available? I actually think Olympus' relationship with Panasonic has been crucial since 2006 when the Olympus E-330 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 Four Thirds DSLRs were introduced with the first Panasonic made LiveMOS sensor. Incidentally, LiveMOS is an Olympus trademark. That first 7.5MP LiveMOS sensor was already a big improvement over the Kodak 8MP E-500 sensor, but it's true to say that Sony (and by implication, Nikon) and Canon have managed to maintain an unassailable sensor technology lead.

I first saw the 12MP LiveMOS sensor that is still used in the latest Pens and Panasonic's Lumix GF3, in a prototype Lumix G1 when I visited Panasonic's Fukushima and Yamagata factories in the early summer of 2008, several months before this original Micro Four Thirds camera was launched at Photokina. So I was surprised and disappointed that Olympus was still using basically the same sensor, then 3-years old, in the new Pens launched last summer. Panasonic had already moved to a 16MP sensor in the G3 (and a different 16MP sensor in the GH2) which, despite the more packed pixels, exhibited improved dynamic range and high ISO noise characteristics. Why had Olympus not opted for this new 16MP LiveMOS sensor? It's more than likely that cost was a consideration. I certainly don't believe that Olympus was somehow barred from using the 16MP sensor by Panasonic. The Panasonic semiconductor division that makes sensors is independent of the Lumix camera business and would be just as keen, and free, to sell sensors to anybody else, like Olympus, regardless of the camera division's wishes.

Olympus has always endured an Achilles Heel in sensors for the E-System and, to an extent with the Micro Four Thirds as well. Excellent image quality, thanks to Olympus deep understanding of digital image processing and superb Zuiko optics has meant that its Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras have never been wanting for image quality. But it's fair to say that Olympus photographers have had to work harder to get the best results where high ISOs are required, especially compared to the best of the rest. I don't expect the E-M5 to be a Nikon D4 beater, but I'm optimistic that high ISO noise will no longer be a bugbear for the E-M5.

So who does make the E-M5's LiveMOS sensor? I don't know - and I don't honestly care that much. What does matter is that Olympus now appears to be able to source a very good sensor from an independent manufacturer and this can only be excellent news for Olympus. I think it's great news for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds in general as the sensor has always been the weakest component of all. If the E-M5 sensor proves to be significantly better than the sensors used in the Lumix GX1 and G3 that will give Panasonic more incentive to improve their sensors, and so on.

It's not a revolution for Olympus to source a new sensor supplier. Nikon doesn't publicly admit that its sensors, although 'designed' by them are actually made by Sony, but we all know that is the case for its DSLR range and has been for a long time. But for the new Nikon 1 compact system camera Nikon almost went out of its way to let us know that sensor used in these cameras was not made by Sony. Pentax used to rely on Samsung sensors for its DSLRs and that allegiance has switched to Sony.

In the end as long as Olympus is free to find and use the best available sensor, I'll be the first to applaud!

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  1. Paul's Avatar
    Nice to know I was justified in a statement I made not so long ago.

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul View Post

    I also believe the Panasonic sensor is not as good as their currant rivals sensors, I really believe if there were a Sony 4/3 's sensor with Nikons know how, all the nit picking about noise and image quality would go away.
  2. John Perriment's Avatar
    That is quite extraordinary news and very welcome. As you say, Ian, it doesn't really matter who the manufacturer is, the main thing is that Olympus are evidently able and willing to, source the best available sensors for their cameras.
  3. StephenL's Avatar
    I too think it's good news. It shows that Olympus are still free-thinking and not blinkered into using what they have become comfortable with.
  4. hschnee's Avatar
    The new sensor is great news to me, as I've been waiting a long time for a significant improvement. I feel even better now about my decision to pre-order an E-M5. It doesn't matter much to me who makes the new sensor; the performance is what's important. I didn't even have anything against Panasonic as a supplier; my issue was that the sensors used by Olympus for the last 3 years have been slight modifications of an old design. I agree (and applaud) how this change should give Panasonic more incentive to improve their sensor design and technology, as Ian mentions.

    I do wonder about the secrecy, though--why are Olympus so reluctant to name the sensor manufacturer? Could it have something to do with a partnership related to the financial struggles? Is it a future investor or buyer of the camera division? Or is it just a marketing hook, to generate more excitement through the rumor mill?

    - Hal -
  5. mhobart's Avatar
    Hal -
    If a company makes components (e.g. sensors) for multiple manufacturers in a given market, they may require non-disclosure on the part of those manufacturers. The evidence is ambiguous on whether or not this ends up helping the component manufacturer or not. I don't think that this would involve any issue re investing or buying the camera division as the lead time in designing in manufacturing the sensor would be much longer than the recent time frame of the company scandal (which originated in a completely different part of Olympus).
  6. West Arm Rider's Avatar
    Perhaps companies are reluctant to name a manufacturer for the same reasons we are so interested in finding out who they are. Its easy to "assume" how something will work based on what others have done with it in the past, so if its a Toshiba sensor we immediately check out Fuji cameras with similar and make a judgement based on that which may not be correct. I imagine camera makers spec out these components with specific goals in mind and the delivered product is somewhat unique to the brand and its main focus, and that is what the manufacturer would like us to concentrate on.

    Of course, a Leopard can't change his spots and the core functionality will be similar. My money is on Toshiba as the manufacturer... sneak over and see what Fuji has
  7. Ned's Avatar
    Maybe Olympus is making it themselves now? This seems to be what they keep hinting at, but nobody believes it.
  8. Ross's Avatar
    First of all, it is good news that this sensor produces nice high ISO images & a relief that it isn't just another offering from Panasonic which is not considered the best for sensitivty, but in disclosing the manufacturer, what if it was Samsung? That might turn some people off knowing that, even if the results are good, so from that point it is better to keep that quiet if that is the source & in time it may be revealed, giving the manufacturer the glory with the results from Olympus (if that is how it pans out).
  9. Ian's Avatar
    Setting up a chip fab is a hundreds of millions of dollars investment. There are relatively few in the world, too. Olympus isn't making their own sensors.
  10. whatapicture's Avatar
    Ian, thanks for all your hard work answering our questions on the new E-M5.
    Guessing what sensor they use is very interesting for a lot of people. Samsung supplied Pentax for a while but only with 'mixed' success. Their own cameras such as the NX10 and NX11 were pretty good performers but lagged behind the rivals slightly in picture quality even though it was an APS-C size.
    If I had the choice of picking a sensor for Olympus, it would be Fuji as I am extremely impressed with the colour rendition and the technology they have employed to get the best out of a small sensor. Just a pipe dream.

  11. jeffa4444's Avatar
    In a strip down the Nikon V1 & J1 sensor is a Aptina (Image Sensor World) made to Nikon spec. and Aptina make a 16MP sensor. Both Sony and Canon make 16.1MP sensors neither of which are 4/3rds (APS-C & APS-H). Sony,Samsung, Aptina, Omnivision, Micro, Teledyne-Dalsa etc. make sensors for 3rd parties and other specialist companies design sensors (CMOSIS, Panavision Digital Imaging, Fairchild) but my bet would be on Aptina.
  12. jeffa4444's Avatar
    This from Aptina VP imaging Gennadiy Agranov:
    Second, there is the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC) segment that is positioned between the compact digital still camera (DSC) and DSLR camera segments. MILC cameras are poised to grow in popularity due to their fast, high-performance image capture in a reasonable sized and priced camera. Aptina has products currently shipping into this segment, and new products planned for 2012 that will foster innovation in these segments and help to actually fuel segment growth.
  13. Ian's Avatar
    The debate about whether or not Panasonic makes the E-M5 sensor, is, rather predictably, raging on elsewhere. Maybe I can add more resolution to what I said in my blog post - who would be in the best position to be a 100% reliable source to say to me that it's not a Panasonic sensor? I'll just leave it at that.
  14. Ian's Avatar
    So it now appears that Olympus have, indirectly, confirmed that the sensor is made by Sony. I certainly feel vindicated!